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Saturday, September 30, 2023

In Mesoamerica’s ancient temazcales, the healing heat hasn’t died down

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Xaman Maricruz tends to the piedras abuelas in preparation for the temazcal ceremony. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Sweat lodges are a feature common to many cultures around the world, including in Finland, Turkey, and across much of the American continent. In Mesoamerica, the most well-known type of sweat lodge is the temazcal — from the Nahuatl language teme “to bathe” and calli “house.”

During Mesoamerican antiquity, temazcales were used as a curative practice to purify the body after a battle or before taking part in a ritual such as the ceremonial ball game, known in Yucatán as pok ta pok. But aside from purification rituals, temazcales were and continue to be used for more therapeutic purposes, including dealing with anxiety, respiratory and digestive ailments, and even during childbirth. 

The remains of a Corbel Arched Maya Temazcal are seen in Chichén Itzá. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Temazcales are usually permanent structures that take on a variety of different shapes, likely as the result of local tradition and the construction materials available. In Yucatán, most ancient temazcales, known in Yucatec-Maya as pibnaoob, were constructed out of limestone and are architecturally distinct from their Nahuatl counterparts, sometimes containing multiple chambers and almost always a Maya corbelled arched entrance. But these days, even in Yucatán, the most common type of temazcal in use today follows the traditional Nahuatl design made up of a single domed chamber, usually built out of mortar or clay bricks. 

Mónica Simone preparing the opal incense for the purification ceremony required to enter the temazcal. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

At the center of the dome is a niche for the volcanic piedras abuelas, or grandmother stones, which are heated in a separate furnace until they are glowing red. 

These are treated with great deference and are often spoken of as if they possessed a will of their own.

Within a temazcal or in an adjacent shrine, it’s common to see representations of the four cardinal points, which are associated with colors (clockwise) black, red, green, and yellow or white that respectively represent death, male virility, life, and the power of the feminine — though the exact order and meaning assigned to each color varies among regions. 

Nahuatl style Temazcal at Semilla de Luna in Chablekal, Yucatán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

“Temazcales are places of healing, spirituality, and introspection. Through the piedras abuelas we connect with the universe itself and its feminine energy,” says Mónica Simone of the Semilla de Luna holistic center on the outskirts of Chablekal, Yucatán. 

Before entering a temazcal, one is treated with copal incense and recites a brief prayer. The symbolism of this prayer refers to the temazcal as both microcosm of the universe and a womb, capable of creating the heat necessary to both purify and create life.

Examples of ancient Temazcales can be found at archaeological sites including Chichén Itzá, Oxkintok, Joya de Cerén, Palenque and Monte Albán — though again, the designs differ greatly. 

But the sweat lodges are not just a relic of the ancient past and are, as a matter of fact, enjoying a real renaissance, with temazcales popping up at holistic centers and hotels in the countryside and even within Mérida itself. 

“The temazcal is a sacred place of healing and must be treated as such; while the experience is sometimes a little grueling for some, in the end, it is always powerful and restorative,” says Maricruz of Mérida’s Xaman Wellness Center & Temazcal.

Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy, and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway.
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